Is it art? Is it great art? These are the questions confronting digital art. For digital artists everywhere, I’d like to announce that the first question is answered. Yes! It’s art. So stop asking.

But great art?? Ah, the question looms over us. Here we are in treacherous terrain, with no clear answers. Indeed, the answers will be played out for years to come. All I can do here is to clarify the discussion so that everyone can participate. If we stand way back, we see FOUR major areas of digital art:

a) Photo-manipulators (which I write about in earlier columns here).
b) Fine art people like me who want to compete with oil painters, etc.
c) The whole area that might be called electronic/video/installation/ conceptual art; popular in some universities and museums. (The next column will be about these artists.)
d) Finally, there’s the huge area that started it all--the programmer/ mathematical/algorithmic/fractal sort of digital art. I want to focus on this area now. Here the lead-off questions are particularly menacing. These people--who often don’t seem to know there’s any other kind of digital art going on--are making a huge amount of fascinating art. But is any of it great art?

Basically, what these artists do is try to extract art from process. They utilize a set of rules, and hope the relentless working out of those rules will result in art. Consider the snowflake. Nature has a simple set of rules for generating snowflakes. A few rules, an infinity of snowflakes. Every one is beautiful. I’ll say every one is art. But great art? I think we have to say no. My sense is that a lot of math-heavy digital art hovers at that same divide.

Programmer/algorithmic artists want to see what nature (as embodied in a computer program) will do. They want to coax the machine into making the art. (Indeed, some purists insist that the machine has to do all the work or it’s not valid.) Often, when the result appears, we are caught between two conflicting emotions. First we are impressed and perhaps even dazzled that something so interesting, precise and complex could be made by a dumb machine dumbly obeying rules. We exclaim, “What human could do such a thing!!” At the same time, we are troubled by the shadow of coldness, by the unease that something alien has moved among us.

I think this dichotomy has been a part of human consciousness since the start. Imagine the first time a human used a straight edge to draw a line. That was high tech! Look at all those perfectly straight lines! But after the novelty wears off, we start missing the rough, awkward, oh-so-human line....Too many of these, however, and we hunger for op art and geometric art!

You can explore the fourth kind of digital art by going to Google and entering “algorithmic art.”

One name I often run across is Eric Heller (ERICJHELLERGALLERY.COM). He sent me a note stating: “When a watercolorist puts brush to paper, physics rules the results.” See how he moves the artist out of the equation. His strengths are that he’s a real scientist (a professor of physics) and humble before his processes. But great art? You decide.

An artist named John Simon, who started as a programmer, actually cracked the New York art world doing this kind of art. He gained attention for a piece called “Every Icon,” a grid measuring 32 squares on a side where each square is white or black. A program is working its way through every possible combination. Centuries from now, the grid will be all one color for an instant. You can see this grid in action at NUMERAL.COM (then click “online artworks”).

On a site called GALLERYDIR.COM, I saw some fractal art by Vicky Brago-Mitchell. I was really impressed. I thought: “This woman has taken fractals as far as I’ve seen.” Then I had that contrary thought that has to nag all serious artists: “How would she take this to the next level? Or is this the next level? Can we put these pictures up against Matisse or de Kooning?” I asked the artist for a comment. She ignored me except to write that “Debating what art is, or even worse, what great art is, is just not my thing.” But let’s give credit: her fractals precipitated this column! Debate their success for yourself.

How do we get to greatness? Well, maybe it is a tedious question. And yet I guarantee you it is the question lurking behind a thousand discussions every day. Perhaps different words are used: Is this good art? Is this important art? Is this art I need to understand? Is this art that will endure? People--even people not too interested in technical things--are increasingly comfortable with accepting digital art as art. But...great? There we have our work defined.

It’s worth noting that some non-digital artists have been, in effect, programmer artists. Sol Lewitt made rules, and his assistants followed them. Or consider a lot of experimental, surrealist and “automatic” approaches to painting and writing. The artist gives control to other forces, and hopes--imagine a little jockey on a big horse--to whip those forces onward to triumph.

When I first started making digital art, I felt that I was obligated to work with what the machine gave me. I’m not sure why I felt that way, but I did take a lot of pride in this credo. So, for several years, I was myself one variety of algorithmic artist. Then I began to miss the roughness that paint can produce, and the obvious human brushwork that you see in the great paintings. I started, increasingly, to interfere and alter. Now, my digital art is a somewhat unorthodox 50/50 blend of beauty I trick the machine into producing, and rather traditional painting techniques on top of that.

I’m sorry I can’t tie this up neatly. I just feel that algorithmic art faces a dilemma. It’s like waves on the ocean, wind-carved sand on the beach, shadows in a forest, patterns in marble, the clouds in the sky, droplets streaking down a window--natural processes create these things. We love these things! But somehow what we call great art usually has to have the human touch meddling in there somehow. The more formal, technical or math-based that digital art becomes, the more that many people are likely to wonder, but where’s the feeling, where’s the humanity?

News from a different galaxy....My literary site is Lit4u.com. I’m particularly proud of a long poem called THEORYLAND that appears on this site. THEORYLAND is a poignant satire of the games that some professors play.